by Sam Juliano
Bob Shea’s latest effervescent confection is titled The Happiest Book Ever and in every manner of its construction it promotes good will and camaraderie. But then Shea himself has done nothing in his celebrated career that doesn’t foster positive energy and anger management. The yellow dust jacket cover is one of the year’s most ebullient and celebratory. The rainbow twins are two clouds connected by arching colors; the glittered sun sports a new hair cut and a pair of snazzy glasses; a dancing cake is topped with white icing, colored sprinkles and four candles; a giraffe adorned in a primary color striped pattern holds two ice cream cones, offering one to the reader. Smileys abound. Even the author of this book is labeled “always happy” and “friendly.” Any notion of ill will or negativity would melt off the page in view of this level of magnanimity. One can’t help but hum the indomitable song “Smile” that Charles Chaplin wrote for his 1936 masterpiece Modern Times.
In any event the “happy face” throughout the book is the all-seeing oracle, one who sets the tone, the ground rules and final decision making. This “man behind the curtain” to paraphrase Emerald City residents, first appears as a commanding spectral on the inside cover, concealed until the book is read and dust jacket removed as per the preferred picture book reading sequence. After the circus tent design (red, yellow, blue and black are the colors there and the favored ones in the book itself) of the fabulous end papers, again shows up on the first page issuing every triumphant phrase in the books to set the stage for a picture book with a distinct theatrical flair. This administrator of jocularity and happy thoughts is also a universal sponsor of the color known in other places as amarillo, jaune, giallo and gelb. Like Little Anthony in The Twilight Zone’s “It’s A Good Life” this radiant specter practically orders all within his realm to “think happy thoughts at all time.” The opening proposition makes a pitch for those in attendance to think about making the book “the happiest ever,” before embarking on the introduction to a group of ecstatic extroverts. He first asks “frowny frog” and the dancing cake to clap their hands and say “Yellow-Bo-Bellow.” Smiley Face is shown with an even happier countenance, but still feels the reception can even be warmer. He suggests that Dancing Cake may be of the wrong variety, perhaps Carrot cake, which he deems “fake.” But Dancing Cake provides evidence of his interior authenticity – chocolate with white icing.
Though young readers will have already figured out that the stationary, stoical frog is the root of the problem, Happy Face, tried to delay the obvious. By not fingering this party pooper straightaway he was hoping for a miraculous change. But his accusation is clear enough: It’s That Frowny, Frowny Frog! To combat the frog’s pertinacious demeanor the page is populated by every celebratory thought and happy gesture one could conjure up. That cool cat sun with the new haircut and snazzy glasses, clouds with faces, a flyin lion, a whale with good news, a smiling face Ferris Wheel with mechanical legs, a splendidly-wrapped present for “you”, hugs, a candy parade, a waffle turtle and syrup, the whole nine yards, just as enticing as Elmo’s wish for Christmas to be every day of the year. Yet, frog, the human counterpart to Uncle Jim in Sarah Stewart and David Small Caldecott Honor winning The Gardener, holds his ground, though like Uncle Jim we will find out a lack of a smile means little in the larger scheme. Happy Face urges those holding the book to shake it, thinking that may induce frog to join the party. Needless to say the frog stays the course as raindrops fall temporarily scattering the wingding. As a drastic recourse Happy Face implores readers to jump ahead to the last page where six “sure-fire” frog jokes await, jokes that may finally solve the impasse with flog. The first is “What do frogs eat in Paris?” (answer: French Flies) and the second “What’s giant and green and hops around Tokyo? (Frogzilla).
Though all the party people are back in normal alignment, frog remains undaunted. Happy Face then is struck by what he thinks is a great idea. A square shaped purple cut out with a happy face is stuck on the front of frog. Happy Face intones Thwipp!, fully confident that the nagging issue has finally be sorted out. But on the very next display of this almost unanimous display of radiant one- mindedness frog is in the process of swallowing the fascistic cloak, which sends Happy Face into an uncharacteristic tizzy: That’s It! I’ve Had Enough of You! Shea’s most striking canvas of all follows, one with a black base and a furious Happy Face serving up a mean eviction notice to frog. The color on black is quite sublime pictorially -Shea is a master of illustration who makes it all seem so simple, but the art projects sumptuous staying power. Everyone is shown as shocked by the oracle’s edict. and the line colors of the bird wings and flowers are exquisite. Happy Face proclaims Hooray! He’s gone! Silly old frog. C’mon everybody! Happy Dance! But everyone is upset and angry with their oracle’s shortsightedness and rash action. In virtually every mini-drawing you have a unanimous display of unhappy campers. The space where flog was glued to is now white. On the subsequent panel Happy Face is saddened as his once effervescent disciples have turned their backs on him. He realizes he was wrong and mean and that he shouldn’t be judging a book by its cover so to speak. Frog was just being frog. I must find him and say I’m sorry.
The frog is at a bus stop with his suitcase. Happy Face issues the sincerest of apologies and tells his amphibian friend that the book is irreversibly miserable and despondent without him. He implores him to return. Frog accepts the overture and returns amidst an initially reticent contingent, but Happy Face sets the proper pep rally exclamations, resulting in a final explosive canvas of unbridled bliss. Frog is holding a blue balloon by the string and the party is back in full swing. Shea, who dazzled his young readers with the irresistible Unicorn Thinks He’s Pretty Great! a few years back is a prolific peddler of confidence building and the importance of friendship, and he may well be presently standing at the front of the class in terms of popularity. No other children’s book author or illustrator -though Eric Carle and Salina Yoon are up there too-holds the stage quite the way he does, but that shouldn’t come as any surprise. He isn’t just a master class illustrator and proponent of thinking positive but he’s also a showman. The Caldecott committee members should be following his act very closely in three weeks.
Note: This is the forty-first entry in the ongoing 2016 Caldecott Medal Contender series. The series does not purport to predict what the committee will choose, rather it attempts to gauge what the writer feels should be in the running. In most instances the books that are featured in the series have been touted as contenders in various online round-ups, but for the ones that are not, the inclusions are a humble plea to the committee for consideration. It is anticipated the series will include in the neighborhood of around 40 to 45 titles; the order which they are being presented in is arbitrary, as every book in this series is a contender. Some of my top favorites of the lot will be done near the end. The awards will be announced on January 22nd, hence the reviews will continue till two days before that date.